Groundhog Day: Ancient Origins of a Modern Celebration | Folklife Today

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The age-old custom is familiar to many: as February 2 approaches, our trusted companion, the groundhog, awakens from its deep slumber, ventures out of its burrow, and divines whether winter shall bestow further frigidness upon us. Legend has it that should the groundhog catch a glimpse of its own shadow, it shall retreat back to its slumber, prolonging the icy grasp for a few more weeks. However, if no shadow is seen, the promise of balmy weather is imminent.

The 1874 reproduction from L. Prang & Co. refers to the groundhog by its even more prevalent title,
This 1874 print from L. Prang & Co. calls the groundhog by its even more common name, “woodchuck,” and uses the older form of its scientific name, “Arctomys Monax.” The designation has since been changed to “Marmota Monax.” Find the archival scan with its bibliographic record here.

The ground squirrel formally known as Marmota Monax is commonly referred to as “Groundhog.” However, this creature goes by various other names such as “woodchuck,” “marmot,” “land beaver,” “whistler,” and even “whistle-pig.” Regardless of its name, there is a strong belief that this burrowing mammal can predict the weather, particularly on the second day of February. This unique Groundhog Day tradition is celebrated with a touch of humor and ceremonial proclamations in many parts of the United States and Canada. Interestingly, it is most renowned among those with German-speaking ancestors, particularly the Pennsylvania Dutch.

If you have an affinity for holiday folklore, you may find it intriguing to learn that Groundhog Day shares connections with two other extensively discussed holidays on this blog: Halloween and Mayday. In his 2003 book Groundhog Day, renowned folklorist Don Yoder reveals the origins of this holiday, tracing it back to the same ancient festivals that gave rise to those two celebrations. From an astronomical standpoint, these festivities were known as cross-quarter days, marking the midpoint between a solstice and an equinox. These vibrant festivals were once observed across Europe by the diverse tribes we now know as Celts. Yoder suggests that their influence on the perception of time extended throughout Europe and even reached the European colonies in America.

The seasonal turning points in the Celtic year were immensely important communal festivals in prehistoric, pre-Christian times. Of these festivals, the dates have continued to be important down to the present time. […] The Celtic names for the four festivals were Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasa.

For the ancient Europeans, these days were so crucial and so embedded in their cultural sense of time that when the Western European peoples were Christianized, the new Church, unable to root them out, “baptized” them into Christian holidays. May 1 became May Day, originally associated with the Virgin Mary and later a secular spring festival, with maypole, May queen, and other folkloric customs. August 1 became in Britain Lammas, or “Loaf-Mass Day,” when the farmers’ wives brought the first loaves of bread baked from the new harvest of grain to the church to be blessed. Since November 1 in the Celtic year was a day devoted to the dead, the Church made it into All Saints’ Day. But the people continued to celebrate the eve of the old holiday as Halloween, with its many harmless folkloric customs that have come all the way down to our day. February 1, extended into February 2, became Candlemas, and eventually Groundhog Day.

All of these transitional days looked to the future, looked ahead to the next season, the coming three-month period, and hence were weather-important days.

Stephen Reid's depiction of the courtship between the youthful warrior Cuchulain and the noblewoman Emer was crafted in 1909 and is now freely available to the public. This artwork offers insights into the significance of the festival known as Oimel or Imbolc, which serves as one of the origins of Groundhog Day.
This illustration of the courtship of the young warrior Cuchulain and the noblewoman Emer was created by Stephen Reid and published in 1909. The story of Cuchulain and Emer contains several clues to the importance of the festival called Oimel or Imbolc, one of the roots of Groundhog Day. The artwork is in the public domain.

In the ancient Irish tale “The Wooing of Emer,” believed to originate from the 11th century but depicting events in pre-Christian Ireland, the four days mentioned by Yoder served as crucial time markers. To convey the requirement of her suitor being an adept warrior, Emer emphasizes his need to be capable of “venturing safely from Samhain to Oimel [Imbolc], from Oimel to Beltaine, and once more from Beltaine to Bron Trogain [Lughnasa].” Another character, the warrior Cuchulainn, refers to Imbolc as “the onset of Spring” and suggests its name is derived from an ancient term associated with sheep, as Imbolc is the period when sheep emerge and are milked. Thus, this saga illustrates how Imbolc held significance as a seasonal turning point, a time marker, and was intertwined with the agricultural year and particularly animal husbandry.

Regrettably, our knowledge regarding the ancient Celts’ festivities of Imbolc is rather limited. Nonetheless, the significance of this occasion as the inaugural day of spring endured until recent recollection. Hailing primarily from Ireland, the land that provides us with the majority of insights into this celebration, The Encyclopedia of Irish Spirituality enlightens us:

The day remains an agricultural festival. Farmers expect good weather for planting on Imbolc and fishermen traditionally overhauled their boats on this day. In traditional practice, there is divination to foretell the weather and family fortunes in the coming year.

Naturally, Imbolc has acquired numerous monikers. Within the Christian calendar, it morphed into the grand celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Notably, in the Irish church, it is joyously commemorated as St. Brigid’s Day. Historically, this day marked the occasion when individuals brought their candles to the church for blessings. Hence, in English colloquialism, it became known as Candlemas, while in French and Spanish, it is referred to as Chandeleur and Candelaria, respectively. Nevertheless, the age-old tradition of weather divination has endured throughout the various adaptations of this holiday.

The 2011 picture
The 2011 photo “Groundhog & Peach” by “Steve 1828” was shared to Flickr with a creative commons license.

Various renditions of this Candlemas weather tradition have been upheld in English, Scots, and Latin, encompassing both straightforward expressions of faith and custom, as well as poetic verses, a handful of which are documented in the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs.

Men were wonte for to discerne

By candlemas day what wedder shulde holde.

(John Skelton, 1523)

If Maries purifieng daie,

Be cleare and bright with sunnie raie,

The frost and cold shal be much more,

After the feast than was before.

(Reginald Scot, 1584)

If Candlemas day be fair and bright

Winter will have another flight

If on Candlemas day it be showre and rain

Winter is gone and will not come again.

(John Ray, 1678)

Si Sol splendescat Maria purificante

Major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante.

(John Ray, 1678)

The front page of Don Yoder's book Groundhog Day displays Bill Deeley from the Inner Circle lifting up the groundhog meteorologist Punxsutawney Phil at the 2002 Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
The cover of Don Yoder’s book Groundhog Day shows Bill Deeley of the Inner Circle holding up the groundhog weather prophet Punxsutawney Phil during the 2002 Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

In the realms of ancient times, the commencement of February intertwined with the art of weather prognostication, a tradition that continues to endure even in the present day. However, the enigma of the groundhog and its purpose in this ritual remains shrouded in mystery!

This particular aspect of the tradition appears to have its roots in Europe, originating specifically from regions that were once inhabited by Celtic communities but later occupied by Germanic speakers. While the Germans attributed weather predictions to a badger instead of a groundhog, the overall customs remained remarkably similar. Yoder provides further insight into this connection.

The Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, or the Dictionary of German Folk Belief, has an article on Lichtmess, or Candlemas. “Above all,” it says, “Candlemas is decisive for the weather of the coming time, and with it also for the fruitfulness of the year.” […] This European encyclopedia also cites the Dachs, or badger, as the Candlemas weather prophet throughout much of German-speaking Europe…. Dachstag, or Badger Day, is a German folk expression for Candlemas. The belief was […] if the badger encountered sunshine on Candlemas and therefore saw his shadow, he crawled back into his hole to stay for four more weeks, which would be a continuation of winter weather.

Yoder further highlights that the badger shares similarities with the groundhog, as both are diminutive, hibernating creatures that reside in forests. Renowned for their timidity, it was only logical for German-speaking immigrants in America to exchange the badger with the groundhog.

In a diary entry for February 2, 1840, penned by a Welsh-American shopkeeper in Pennsylvania, Yoder stumbled upon the earliest reference to groundhogs foretelling the weather.

Today the Germans say the groundhog comes out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he returns in and remains there 40 days.

According to Morris, this perception is widely embraced by his German neighbors, extending beyond individual families or towns. He perceives it as an age-old belief rather than a recent phenomenon. Given the European origins of this tradition and the influx of Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants from 1727 to 1775, it is highly plausible that Groundhog Day emerged during that era.

In the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, the captivating traditions and rituals of Groundhog Day have sparked an intriguing phenomenon known as the “Groundhog Lodges.” These vibrant social clubs have formed a close-knit community dedicated to upholding the rich heritage and language of Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Dating back to the 1930s, these lodges convene in gatherings known as “versammlinge,” where participants engage solely in the enchanting Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. Reflecting on his initial experience in the 1990s, William W. Donner vividly recounts the essence of a versammling in his remarkable 2016 publication, Serious Nonsense.

The front of William W. Donner’s book Serious Nonsense displays a gathering of Groundhog Lodge #1 in 1971, with a towering eight foot statue of a Groundhog adorned with a crown being pushed down the walkway.
The cover of William W. Donner’s book Serious Nonsense shows a meeting of Groundhog Lodge #1 in 1971, with an eight foot tall statue of a Groundhog wearing a crown being wheeled down the aisle.

There were three or four hundred men in the hall. At the front were a decorated stage and an eight-foot statue of a groundhog wearing a crown. At the beginning of the meeting, everyone stood reverently as men in top hats carried in a stuffed groundhog and placed it in front of the speaker’s podium. They pledged allegiance to the American flag, sang “America,” and then listened to a prayer, all in the Pennsylvania German Deitsch language. They raised both hands as paws and took an oath of allegiance to the lodge and groundhog; they listened to a weather report, piped into the speaker system, about whether or not the groundhog saw his shadow; they ate a hearty meal; they sang songs; they watched a humorous skit about a lecherous doctor who cured people by transferring their ailments to his assistant; and they listened to an inspirational talk, sprinkled with humor, about the values of Pennsylvania German life. Anyone who spoke English, especially from the podium, was charged a fine for each word.

Donner’s book offers a plethora of fascinating details regarding the lodges and their diverse activities. If you are eager to embark on a quest for a genuine Pennsylvania German encounter, you will find an abundance of information within its pages. (It is worth noting that “Pennsylvania Dutch” and “Pennsylvania German” are interchangeable terms; while Don Yoder favored the former, William Donner leans towards the latter.)

If you don’t belong to the Pennsylvania Dutch community or the Pennsylvania German heritage, you might find joy in commemorating Groundhog Day without enduring a lengthy assembly or facing penalties for speaking languages other than English. There is, however, an alternate course of action – participating in a vibrant Groundhog Day festivity. These gatherings, often held in open-air settings due to their connection with a slumbering woodchuck, offer a chance to avoid crowded indoor spaces. Nonetheless, we strongly encourage you to prioritize safety during the pandemic by wearing a mask and taking necessary precautions.

The renowned Groundhog Day ceremony, widely celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is a spectacle that captivates the masses. Originating in 1887, when local members of the Elks Lodge sought the wisdom of a groundhog at nearby Gobbler’s Knob regarding the weather, this event has transformed into an annual extravaganza filled with playful jest. During this whimsical gathering, a groundhog named “Punxsutawney Phil,” christened in the 1960s, imparts his prediction to the exclusive “Inner Circle” – a distinguished group of gentlemen donning formal attire and top hats. Although various Groundhog Day ceremonies take place across the United States and Canada, the Punxsutawney celebration reigns supreme, garnering unparalleled popularity. Its significance further elevated when the iconic philosophical comedy film, Groundhog Day, was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2015. (For an in-depth exploration, please refer to the induction essay available in PDF format at this link.)

Aaron Silvers captured and shared this image of the Groundhog Day sign in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.
This photo of the Groundhog Day sign in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, was taken by Aaron Silvers and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

If you reside in close proximity to us in Washington, D.C., It might bring you joy to discover that we host our very own local celebration of Groundhog Day at the Dupont Circle Fountain. Taking inspiration from the Punxsutawney tradition, our event showcases “Potomac Phil,” a stuffed groundhog who mysteriously conveys his forecasts to an exclusive Inner Circle adorned in elegant top hats. Diverging from his Punxsutawney counterpart, Potomac Phil provides insights into both the physical and political climate. In the year 2021, for instance, he accurately prophesied an early arrival of Spring as well as persistent political deadlock. We leave it to you to assess the precision of his predictions!

groundhog day ancient origins of a modern celebration folklife today 811372
“Potomac Phil” holds court in Dupont Circle in this photo from Groundhog Day 2021. The photo was taken by “angela n.” and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Potomac Phil’s tradition carries on in 2022. As the Dupont Festival guarantees:

WED, FEB 2, 2022 at 8:30AM sharp – GROUNDHOG DAY: Potomac Phil, the National Groundhog, will make an appearance and offer weather and political predictions. Phil will let us know whether to expect six more weeks of winter or an early spring. Music, polka dancers, puppet show, lots of coffee, VIP celebrities and more.

If you happen to reside far from a Groundhog Day event and have no desire to journey, fear not! You can always indulge in the delightful film Groundhog Day. Alternatively, you may immerse yourself in the captivating literature I have recommended, including Don Yoder’s captivating work on Groundhog Day and William W. Donner’s intriguing masterpiece, Serious Nonsense. If you have little ones in your life (or perhaps you are still a child at heart), the Library houses an abundance of enchanting children’s books centered around Groundhog Day. Discover the wonders within this link.

Potomac Phil murmurs forecasts to one of his Inner Circle of devotees in this snapshot from Groundhog Day 2017 in Dupont Circle. The snapshot was captured by Joe Flood and distributed to Flickr with a Creative Commons license.
Potomac Phil whispers predictions to one of his Inner Circle of followers in this photo from Groundhog Day 2017 in Dupont Circle. The photo was taken by Joe Flood and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

Should you find yourself in a zealous state of mind, it is within your capacity to prepare and indulge in the culinary experience of a groundhog. In the early American cookbooks, including the renowned Irma Rombauer’s timeless masterpiece, Joy of Cooking, one could uncover the secrets of transforming the humble “woodchuck” into a delectable dish. It is worth noting that this peculiar possibility persisted until the 1970s. However, it is imperative to clarify that I do not advocate for the consumption of groundhogs; my intention merely lies in enlightening you about its plausibility. Therefore, I shall refrain from sharing any recipes on this matter!

The Library of Congress possesses a copy of this publication of Groundhog Day songs.
The Library of Congress has an edition of this book of Groundhog Day carols.

One alternative method of celebration, and a highly recommended one at that, involves engaging in the joyous activity of singing or listening to groundhog songs. Within Yoder’s captivating book, you will discover delightful parodies of popular carols, such as “Grundsow Ivver Alles,” cleverly sung to the well-known German anthem. Additionally, there is the enchanting rendition of “Today the Groundhog Comes,” harmoniously sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” Lastly, let us not forget the charming melody of “Punxsutawney Phil Looked Out,” performed to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas.” For those seeking a deeper dive into this musical celebration, the esteemed Library of Congress offers a comprehensive collection of Groundhog Day carols, which can be explored further through this provided link.

Amidst the vibrant tapestry of song parodies, the archive of the American Folklife Center holds a treasure trove of older, more unassuming groundhog songs. Within this digital realm, two gems await discovery: the renowned melody of the fiddle and banjo, simply titled “Groundhog,” and the soulful blues anthem known as “Prowling Groundhog.”

The blues classic known as “Prowling Groundhog” has been embraced in different renditions, captivating audiences since the 1930s. However, the remarkable version preserved within AFC’s collection was captured in the dynamic 1970s by the legendary Sam Chatmon. You can experience this timeless piece through a simple click, graciously shared by our esteemed counterparts at the Association for Cultural Equity.

On Groundhog Day, we always enjoy listening to a delightful 1940 recording called “Groundhog,” which has become a timeless favorite. This captivating piece was discovered by Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin during their visit to the Shafter FSA Camp in California, where they encountered the talented Ernie Alston. Alston, who learned the song from a young lad in Arkansas, generously shared both the audio and a written transcription. Take a moment to savor this delightful tune in the player below, and read the enchanting lyrics provided. We guarantee it will leave you thoroughly enchanted!

“Groundhog” by Ernie Alston

I’ll bring my firearm and blow the whistle to call my dog.

I’ll bring my firearm and blow the whistle to call my dog.

Thought I’d get me a groundhog–groundhog.

The old dog treed and treed in a log

The old dog treed and treed in a log

One for me and two for my dog–groundhog.

I cut him up and I got him on soon

I cut him up and I got him on soon

He got done before quite noon–groundhog.

Here come the chillun with a laugh and a grin

Here come the chillun with a laugh and a grin

Groundhog gravy all over their chin–groundhog.

Old Uncle Sam kept hangin’ roun’

Old Uncle Sam kept hangin’ roun’

Thought he’d get my groundhog ham–groundhog.

Old Aunty Jane came skippin’ on a chain

Old Aunty Jane came skippin’ on a chain

Thought she’d get my groundhog brain–groundhog.

Old Aunty Sal came skip and a hop

Old Aunty Sal came skip and a hop

Flounced her head right in that pot–groundhog.

Want my grave dug deep and wide

Want my grave dug deep and wide

Want it lined with groundhog hide–groundhog.

Want my tombstone on it wrote

Want my tombstone on it wrote

Groundhogs runnin’ down my throat–groundhog.

For those seeking a comparative analysis of “Groundhog” with other recordings, we highly suggest exploring two remarkable pieces from the AFC collections, meticulously captured in Kentucky during the enchanting 1930s by the talented duo of Alan and Elizabeth Lomax.

The promotional image from the 1920s exhibits Bradley Kincaid (guitar) and George
This publicity photo from the 1920s shows Bradley Kincaid (guitar) and George “Shortbuckle” Roark (banjo) with Roark’s children and a crowd of admirers. We believe the photo is in the public domain. Roark recorded “Groundhog” for the Lomaxes in 1938.

“Groundhog,” performed and played on the violin by Blind Jim Howard can be found at this link.

“Groundhog,” performed and strummed on banjo by George “Shortbuckle” Roark can be found at this link.

We trust that you have relished this sneak peek into the customs of Groundhog Day. As we have witnessed, the dates of February 1 and 2 hold a multitude of significances and connections across various cultural communities, with Groundhog Day being merely a vivid form of commemoration. It is our aspiration to revisit later on, exploring additional insights into St. Brigid’s Day, Candelaria, and various customary methods to rejoice in the month of February.

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